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 Parliament  

Ministers who live it up while journalists pay the supreme price


Ranil Wickremesinghe, Champika Ranawaka and Gamini Lokugbe

 By Dilrukshi Handunnetti

While a December revision in the house rent payment to ministers has slashed the amount in half, the incurred expenses of some ministers still raises eyebrows, what with some ministers even purchasing their mattresses with tax payers' money.

For example, Presidential elder sibling Chamal Rajapakse is not provided with an official residence from his current ministry, Ports and Aviation. However, he was provided with an official home while serving as Minister of Irrigation and Water Management and occupied since March 2007.

There had been no expenditure incurred from 2005 to 2007 for repairs according to the Hansard report of November 14, 2008. However to cool the air, four air conditioners have been fixed in 2007 at the cost of Rs. 212,000.00

His average electricity bill is in the range of Rs.20,000 while the water bill has fluctuated between Rs. 34,387.90, the highest and Rs. 8,332.50, the lowest.

A thorn

The fact that a few of these rent related questions are daily raised in parliament does not augur well for some government types. Often, JVP Parliamentarian Ranaweera Pathirana who raises these questions has to deal with cryptic or sarcastic answers.

Take this one for example. Minister of Sports and Public Recreation, Gamini Lokuge on November 14 declared that he was not provided with an official residence in Colombo. It is a well-known fact that the Minister has a private residence in Colombo hence requires no other home.

When queried as to whether he drew the rent allowance of Rs. 100,000, Lokuge's answer was evasive - "I draw every allowance that is offered by parliament." And then the Minister wanted to know whether MP Pathirana was not drinking orange juice at the parliament MPs dining room, attempting cheekily to equate drinking juice to the drawing of a Rs. 100,000 allowance.

This reluctance to disclose the drawing of a house rent is not peculiar to Minister Lokuge. The next day, on November 15, it was Higher Education Minister, Dr. Wiswa Warnapala's opportunity to respond to the same. His reply was similar -  that he did not have the benefit of a state provided official residence in Colombo, and when asked, admitted that 'some payment was received' by him. It too a while to drag the answer out - that he drew the same amount as others.

Repairs

Take Minister of Indigenous Medicine, Tissa Karaliyadda. He is provided with an official residence. He has had his carpets vacuumed at a cost of Rs. 7,500.00 and the entire house repaired for Rs. 221,000.00

Non Cabinet Minister of Home Affairs, Chandrasiri Gajadheera has been provided with a residence in Colombo. It has been repaired in the year 2007 at the cost of Rs.346,485. Further he has also purchased furniture at a total cost of Rs. 53,710.00. These payments covered the purchase of curtains for Rs. 30,400.00, mattress for Rs. 17,600.00 and a second mattress for Rs. 5,710.00

Besides, his cane chairs have been repaired at the cost of Rs.12,000.00 and the sofa set at Rs. 30,840.00

Uproar over assassination

The brief 45 minute parliament sitting on Friday may as well have been divided in to two separate worlds. The first speech of the day was being given by Environment Minister Champika Ranawaka, who strained to be heard over a furious uproar emanating from the well of the house.

Whilst Ranawaka tried to voice his views on the 'Human elephant conflict,' proverbial self-declared elephants in the form of over 20 UNP MPs were camped in the well of the house in front of the Speaker's chair, seated cross-legged and adorned with red and black shawls, calling the government murderers over the killing of Lasantha Wickrematunge.

The tone of the morning was emotionally charged for most and sober for others. Towards the end of Ranawaka's speech about dangers to four legged elephants, UNP MPs began shouting out questions such as "who is the next elephant you have decided to kill?" and "what is this special unit that has been formed to kill elephants?"

Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama tried valiantly to speak in response to queries by JVP Parliamentary Group Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, and voiced his disgust at the wanton killing of civilians and severe human rights abuses - in the far away Palestinian Territories, whilst keeping mum on the tragedy unfolding at the government's doorstep.

UNP Kurunegala District MP Dayasiri Jayasekera rose to a point of parliamentary privilege, and told the house that he had received phone calls threatening him with death warning that he was too outspoken against the government both inside and outside the house of parliament. "You will be the next to follow in Lasantha Wickrematunge's footsteps," the anonymous caller had threatened Jayasekera.

This led to heckles from government benches with Ministers Mahindananda Aluthgamage and Hemakumara Nanayakkara leading a chanting campaign, with Aluthgamage pointing his fingers at UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and warning the UNP parliamentarians that they had better try to protect him from being targeted next. "You better protect your Leader," the Minister warned.

The chants were an ominous reminder of the events surrounding the second reading of the 2007 Budget proposals in parliament, in the run up to which, relatives of several TNA MPs were abducted and TNA Leader R. Sampanthan appealed to the Speaker to try and secure their release.

At the time, late Chief Government Whip Jeyaraj Fernandopulle led a chorus of government ministers who heckled and hounded the TNA MPs in the chamber. "That's tough luck for you. We only give security to you and not to your families," Fernandopulle taunted, followed by raucous laughter by those occupying the government benches.

When Wickremesinghe rose to speak and condemn the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge and call for an international investigation into the crime, he too was heckled by government ministers across the floor, who abused him in Sinhala in a loud attempt to drown out his condemnation of the assassination.

Until he rose to make his speech, Wickremesinghe was symbolically wearing a red shawl as a gag over his mouth, in what appeared to be an attempt to signify the stifling of the free media in the light of recent events.

The UNP was scheduled to table a no-confidence motion against the government today, however none of the party's MPs responded to queries by Speaker W.K.M. Lokubandara as to whether they intended to table the motion or not.

Leader of the House Nimal Siripala de Silva then opined that since the motion was not tabled on its due day, it would be considered as null and void. Throughout the entire proceedings, UNP MPs Dr. Jayalath Jayawardena, Sagala Ratnayake, Thalatha Atukorale and 20 others occupied the well of the house donning their shawls, holding placards and protesting the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge.

 


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